The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Paris Review No. 39

Posted on: August 14, 2007

This 1966 issue made me long for the return of the “Art of Theatre” interviews. I don’t know in which year they were discontinued but I’d be surprised if it made it to the 90s. Is it that they’ve covered all of the quality playwrights working today? No new ones sprung up? I’ve read three heavies so far — Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee — and the discussion about their work, their different approaches, they’re different angle on theatre performance have not only raised my interest in their plays but made the prospect of reading concurrent or more recent plays less daunting. (We have more than a few playwrights in both of the reading challenges.)

I wouldn’t know where to start with contemporary playwrights. Theatre reviews are still done in some newspapers and the TLS keeps up as well, but I wouldn’t mind reading reviews that were more engaged with the script. I only read the TLS reviews (occasionally) and the focus tends to be more on the visual rather than the verbal — the set, how the actors did, the director’s skill etc. — which is understandable but not ideal for someone who may want to purchase the play in book form to enjoy at least that aspect. Except that I don’t know if they even publish contemporary plays any more. (Besides the ones by Pinter, I guess, he did get a Nobel.) I know to see a play is the ideal experience but if one wants a play to live outside a big city wouldn’t the conversation need to be extended beyond an opening night review? Maybe people only study plays that way then the playwright dies and/or I’m revealing my ignorance about how things work.

My ignorance of other things proved amusing while reading the interviews. I knew about Arthur Miller (I had read The Crucible) and I knew that a play entitled Death of a Salesman existed but I had no idea there was a connection between the two. Imagine! Thanks to BBC Radio 3 I knew all about The Homecoming so I could shrug with insouciance. Albee came along — who the heck is he, I thought, besides filthy rich as the intrepid interviewer went to such pains to inform me? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Oh! Ooooh. But that’s enough embarrassing confessions for one day.

The Harold Pinter interview, “The Art of the Theatre III”, opened the issue, complete with a handsome picture of the man scrutinizing some papers on a desk, black shirt oh so casually opened at the collar. The introduction was just enough: detailed description of his carriage in person with a brief overview of the trajectory of his theatre career, both as an actor and director.

Interviewer: Peter Hall, who has directed many of your plays, says that they rely on precise verbal form and rhythm, and when you write “pause” it means something other than “silence,” [cracked American punctuation – .ed] and three dots are different from a full stop. Is his sensitivity to this kind of writing responsible for your working well together?

Pinter: Yes, it is, very much so. I do pay great attention to those points you just mentioned. Hall once held a dot and pause rehearsal for the actors in The Homecoming. Although it sounds bloody pretentious it was apparently very valuable.

Questions were the way I liked it, focused on analysis of his work, some insight into his creative process, shed a bit of light on various critical reactions, how he felt about certain flops and so on. Great gem, you should read it, it’s free! (PDF required)

Edward Albee’s arrogant, whatever attitude was what saved “The Art of Theatre IV” interview from disaster. That’s amusing because when my eyes quickly skimmed a line or two in my first flip through I thought, oh god I’m not going to enjoy reading about this blowhard [Albee]. I picked up on his brashness out of context; little did I know that Mr. William Flanagan was the cause of it all.

The dreaded interview-by-a-friend — you know how much I hate those. Yet I disliked this one for entirely different reasons from the usual. I wasn’t regaled with chummy in-jokes or unnecessary delving into the writer’s personal life. The first bad sign was Flanagan’s strange insistence on letting the readers know how rich Albee now was after movie deals and what not (but look how simple his country home is! what a guy). Then he spent about 80% of the interview asking Albee to respond to various critics’ (often negative) appraisals of his works. I’m not joking. It was just line after line of, “And this critic here said so and so. What do you think about that, hmm? And this one said that and the other, do you agree with that description? Oh, indeed?” ad infinitum. He was like a bad journalist exhausting the “controversy” angle. The other 20% was the bad journalist trying to extract every detail of Albee’s creative process in the hopes of picking up something useful in order to write his magnum opus.

Honestly. It’s a wonder I got anything interesting out of the whole thing. What’s funny is that at the beginning Flanagan wrote, “[We] have been both friends and composer-writer collaborators for about eighteen years. But Albee’s barbed, poised, and elegantly guarded public press style took over after the phrasing of the first question — though perhaps it was intermittenly penetrated during the course of the talk.” Gee, I wonder why that was?

The two short fiction pieces in the interview were very very weird. I blame the drugs. The first, “City Boy” by Leonard Michaels, was basically about a young man who did it with his girlfriend on the living room floor of her pent house, got caught by her father, left the place naked…while walking upside down on his hands the whole time? caught by his girl in the subway with his clothes, returned to her place now sans parents because her dad had a stroke or something, and they screw again. I haven’t even mentioned the two weirdest scenes. It’s all written as if he’s in a haze, especially the handstand, walking bit, a bit of a woozy stream of consciousness thing, so I figured he wrote it high. The Paris Review would have totally been cool with that in those days.

The second story, “Skyblue on the Dump” by Dallas E. Wiebe, was more or less a PSA for why drugs are bad for you. I don’t know. So this kid named Skyblue goes to the library to read some British Middle-age lit and he has a mixture of dream and recollection. The dream was the drug-fuelled bit. He lived on a bull farm so in the flashback he’s in the grass gazing at a bull called Pursus. This leads to a free association mumble of every Greek mythological reference known to man which ends in a girl named Edith having sex with a bull in front of him. Things take a sharp right turn to a potentially interesting, vividly described episode in which he and a relative (one assumes) transport some bulls to be slaughtered. Besides an odd interlude in which a horny bull causes a temporary disruption, the bloody, smelly realism of those scenes is a marked contrast to the dreamy bestiality in the grass. Except that I have no idea what he’s going for. The memory ends with him in the slaughterhouse trying to calm down the bull and his sister, Grassgreen, in the bathroom, naked, checking herself out. Then Skyblue blinks and we’re back in the present.

Wtf?

The poetry selections were a lost cause. It was as if each writer composed verse in a different language. I can’t explain it any better than that that I would try to read a line, mouth, Wtf? and turn the page. My eyes rested on two Pablo Neruda selections, and I’m not even that fond of the guy’s work. It’s just that we were on the same planet. There were some pictures from an art exhibition of Martial Raysse‘s…err…curious paintings. Meh.

The big draw for me when I read the cover of this issue was a “representative selection” of discovered e e cummings letters to Ezra Pound. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand what the heck cummings wrote — this issue was a huge question mark, but I still enjoyed it, odd, eh? — and bully for an ignoramus like me, “The editors…have further assumed that it would be an impertinence to explicate Cummings’ verbal coinages, his odd transliterations from French and other foreign languages, the tricks he plays, with people’s names”. Well, laaa di daaa. Maybe my more refined readership could translate this for me?

when through who-the-unotherish twilight up drops but his niblicks Sir Oral Né Ferdinand Joegesq (disarmed to the nonteeth by loseable scripture befisto -zr- P–nd subhesting etsemina our lightwrittens) and him as mightily distant from a fit of the incheerfuls extroverts Well why not send your portrait of you and your portrait of me? J,says sprouts,itch’ll bepigged,if only in the name of Adver the Tisement;but will they immaculate it on t’other conceptions (meaning Brussels) which being respondfully preanswered we thusforth are proseeding.

I have a vague idea but I’m not such a nosy missus that I’m eager to decode pages and pages of similar writings. Ah well, one day.

2 Responses to "The Paris Review No. 39"

Wow — how strange! I thought only his poetry was like that …

Apparently not! I should have linked to the book they were taken from. Maybe if I had it book form I’d be more inclined to brush off my decoder ring.

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